Flacco, Harbaugh Fuel Ravens' Playoff Hopes

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The aspirations keep ratcheting up for the Baltimore Ravens. After unraveling last season, they are back on solid footing with first-year coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and have given the organization reason to believe the future is promising.

What about finishing off this bounce-back season with a playoff appearance? It might have seemed unthinkable when Harbaugh, given little choice because of Kyle Boller's season-ending shoulder injury and Troy Smith's preseason tonsil infection, decided to go into the season with Flacco as his starter.

But now, with the Ravens (8-4) in the thick of the AFC playoff chase entering Sunday night's game against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium, it's not at all far-fetched. Still, General Manager Ozzie Newsome wasn't ready yesterday to make that his officially stated expectation.

"The whole year, we've been taking it one week at a time," Newsome said by telephone. "The most important thing for us to focus on this week is the Redskins. We'll add it up at the end, and if we've won enough to get into the playoffs, great. If not, we'll start getting ready for next year."

Still, it's clear the Ravens have qualified as one of the league's surprises no matter what happens down the stretch. A 13-3 season two years ago gave way to a 5-11 disappointment last season in which the team, at times, seemed in disarray. Owner Steve Bisciotti fired Brian Billick as his coach, and quarterback Steve McNair and left tackle Jonathan Ogden retired.

It looked like the beginning of a sizable rebuilding project. Instead, the Ravens are a game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. They're ranked second in the league in total defense, and Flacco is doing his part. Newsome came close to admitting yesterday that he'd been surprised by the team's success.

"If you would have looked at history, you would have said yes," said the Hall of Fame tight end. "You would say we've accomplished more than we thought we would accomplish, if you'd looked at history. But I think it has been proven here lately, both with what we're doing and with what's happening in Atlanta, that it can be done if you can get the whole organization on the same page and you can get the kind of coaching that we're getting."

Indeed, it is the year of the rookie quarterback and the rookie coach in the NFL, with the Atlanta Falcons having duplicated the Ravens' record with their own first-year coach, Mike Smith, and prized fledgling quarterback Matt Ryan.

"In today's game, I'm all right with starting a rookie quarterback -- obviously, with our decision to go forward with Matt," Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said during a recent interview. "I think [it's viable] if a guy is ready, if a guy is competitive, if a guy is tough enough and has the resiliency to pick himself up off the ground because there are going to be some hard knocks."

Troy Aikman didn't win as a rookie in Dallas. Peyton Manning didn't win as a rookie in Indianapolis. Most quarterbacks who start as rookies struggle. But Flacco and Ryan are coming closer to the formula of Ben Roethlisberger, who won his first 14 starts, including a playoff game, as a rookie for the Steelers in the 2004 season.

"Look at Roethlisberger's rookie year in Pittsburgh," former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross, now an NFL analyst for CBS, said yesterday. "You had a rookie quarterback go in there with a lot of veterans on the team, with a great defense. There were other things that allowed him to be successful. It's also got to be a unique individual. That seems to be the case with Ryan and Flacco. Those teams chose well. But that Atlanta team was not decrepit talent-wise, and in Baltimore you've got a really good defense that's been sort of reawakened."

Cross said the arrival of Harbaugh might have helped reinvigorate some Ravens defensive veterans such as linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed.

"Maybe the young coach has given them a little pep in their step, too," Cross said. "There were some questions. You looked at Ray Lewis and said, 'Great player. Hall of Famer. But look at the years.' But now you look at them, and they're really showing that they love what they do. You can see that. Sometimes it's simply a different message, or the same message from a different guy."

Newsome said he knew all along his club's defense remained championship-caliber.

"I knew our defense was going to be good," he said. "Last year we lost our corners, so that was a point of emphasis for us in free agency and the draft. We've been playing without some guys here lately. But when you put those 11 guys on the field, they can play. When you're talking about Ray and [defensive tackle Haloti] Ngata and Reed and [defensive end Terrell] Suggs and some others, you're talking about some of the best players in the league at their positions."

Flacco was put into a good situation with capable players around him, Newsome said, even if that perhaps didn't appear to be the case to some observers going in.

"We were 13-3 the year before," Newsome said. "It's not like we were consistently picking in the top five of the draft. I don't think Atlanta was, either. In our case, there was some talent and some depth here. There was some leadership. The other thing is, if you can run the ball and stop the run, you have a heck of a chance to win in this league."

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